Becoming a reader

I think there must be certain moments or periods in readers’ lives when they become readers. Because I wonder how many of us are born loving books, and how many fall into reading by chance, or kicking and screaming, or by choice later in life?

Do you remember when you became a reader?

I would say that I am a born again reader, having experienced both a birth and a death earlier in life.

I can’t recall any defining moment when I realized that I loved books. I just remember always spending long stretches of time in the children’s sections of book stores, and also taking longer than anyone else to make the absolute right choice whenever the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) volunteers came to our school to distribute free books. I also received a $1.50 weekly allowance, and with that I always made a bee-line to Barnes & Noble to get a novel of my choice,  devouring it well before my next allowance came. I would be 11 or so before I stepped foot into a real library for the first time, partly because my parents were new to the country and didn’t know where the library was, and partly because my younger brother and I had (allegedly) for years screamed bloody murder whenever our parents tried to get us into the dark Boston Park Street station (home of America’s first subway, and it looked it).

Stepping foot into Copley Square’s historical library and one of the largest in America, my mouth would just about literally water and I would borrow as many books as my library card allowed. At 11, I was especially interested in and worried about puberty so, pre-internet, books were my only hope of getting answers to the questions I had rather die than ask of my parents and friends.

I can still recall so vividly my favorite authors, titles, characters and jacket covers. I loved Judy Blume and Lois Lowry and I remember well and fondly Ramona, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harriet the Spy, and the Littles. I was emotionally invested in each book I picked up and felt an unsettling discomfort whenever I was done. Circumstances were stressful growing up, and my characters’ lives were lives I escaped into. Without those places, life felt too real and uninhabitable.

When it comes to adult books I’ve loved, my mind draws an immediate blank and then begins searching, like a confused compass needle that needs to be recalibrated. During that long stretch between high school and motherhood, I had ceased to be a reader. This isn’t to say that I never picked up a book – I actually graduated college with a major in English literature – but I had lost my hunger to read.

I’d become clinically depressed during college. Without the mental functioning needed to desire, enjoy and concentrate on a good story, I simply went through the motions of reading. My mind was overwhelmed by a constant parade of obsessive and negative thoughts from which I no longer had the strength to escape. By the time my depression lifted, my energies were channeled toward my career and a new life overseas and I was more interested in living life than in reading about it. Perhaps I had too utilitarian a view on reading, that it could serve me only when I needed to run away.

It would be another 20 years before I opened myself to reading for pleasure.

The book was The Da Vinci Code, and I had just entered my second year as a mother. I had by then built a mini-library of pregnancy and childcare books but for some reason decided to pick up this novel on a friend’s recommendation.

I read The Da Vinci Code in a haze of sleep deprivation and in the midst of starting a new business while trying to keep the house under control. I read with one hand holding the book and the other hand stir frying dinner, and I sneaked in paragraphs while playing with Fred and when he had his back turned. Like exercise, I realized you really can find time to read if you wanted to.

Very slowly the childcare books gave way to “me” books, and I had to re-learn (or establish?) the rules of reading:

No self-flagellation for not reading books on child development.

No self-flagellation for not reading the classics or Booker Prize winners.

No self-flagellation for abandoning a book partway through because it fails to keep your interest.

Dare and give yourself permission to dislike a book that the critics “hail as the literary achievement of the decade,” and vice versa. 

In those early years of motherhood it was an achievement to read even two books a year. As Fred got a little older and our business began to stabilize, my reading time and mental capacity increased, and I was soon getting up to five books a year, and then ten.

And then I broke my leg this summer.

I began reading as a way to pass the copious time in isolation, but soon found myself eagerly lining up the next book before I was halfway done with my current one. My friend Shannon, a fellow mother and book lover, would give me recommendations or drop off library books for me that she knew I’d like. And I would greedily accept her lends even though I had four (or 40; where do you stop counting?) of my own in queue. She’d invite me to her house but tell me to “bring a book.” I realized this time that reading can be simultaneously an independent and shared fun experience, not necessarily an escape from which you don’t want to return.

I have two lost decades to make up for, but somehow I think I’ll make the time.

When or how did you become a reader?

And on a different note, my post What if feels like when your mom blogs about you is syndicated today on Blogher. If you haven’t read it, I’d love it if you stopped by

6 thoughts on “Becoming a reader

  1. I cannot remember when I fell in love with books. I just remember always loving to read and eventually write stories. We went to the library every two weeks and it was as much a part of me as going to church and going to school and everything else.

    And then I got into boys. And I went off to college. And I pretty much stopped reading. I didn’t major in English (I wish now that I had). But I was so majored in boys and life and partying that I stopped reading and writing.

    I probably read a few trending books along the way, just so I could be in the conversations that were happening around me, but that’s it. I didn’t start reading and writing (for pleasure) again until my late twenties. And thank God I did. It’s how I found myself again.

  2. I have always enjoyed books because I’ve always been an introvert. I used to day dream a lot so books filled that fix for me. I could, in books, converse in my head and have a language that felt easy and natural.

    I stopped reading when I became a mom because I said I didn’t have time. But recently, I’ve been making the time because I realized that reading must be a priority for me. I enjoy it too much to not do it. I don’t get to read blogs as much, which were my reading “fix” for so long, but I am reading books. Right now, I’m reading “How to Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Million Little Pieces.” I read at night, mostly, so it’s like a new kind of nightly indulgence for me.

    Congratulations on your syndication!! I will go comment there now!

  3. Love this post! And especially your rules of reading. I have a bookshelf of classics from my college years – ones I haven’t read because I either dropped the class and kept the books or they were given to me by my old roommate – and I always feel bad that I’ve yet to read any of those. I keep going to them, and then changing my mind, thinking maybe someday I will feel like reading Jude the Obscure or Daisy Miller. That day has yet to come. With your rules, I at least feel better about it 🙂

  4. p.s. I’m reading Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” now, another one of the classics from my bookcase, and so far, I’m enjoying it. That makes me wonder if I would feel the same about the other books on my shelves had I given them a chance as well.

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